Our phones provide connection, communication and knowledge – and have become part of our identities. No wonder privacy violations bother us so much.
On the surface, that argument has a particular and recognizable ethical character. But further down, it is about something else – something deeper that has to do with identity itself.
Utilitarian thinkers like John Stuart Mill have always held that the best way to decide any ethical question is to look and see which action has the best consequences.
Turning to the iPhone case, the way this argument has played out in the media suggests that it is all about which future is the most dire: the one where terrorists can hide their communications in common devices, or the one where the governmental eye of Sauron sees all.
Yet this characterization oversimplifies what is really at stake. Both pictures of the future are misleading, if only because terrorists have, like the rest of us, numerous ways to get in contact with one another. Breaking into this particular iPhone won’t change that. Moreover, your data is already unsafe. As more than one wag put it on Twitter, that’s what makes it so ironic that privacy advocates like to complain on social media.
But the deeper problem with the “it’s all about the consequences” side of the debate is that it ignores the increasingly intimate relation we bear to the devices around us.
Smartphones were only the first step towards the world we live in now – the “internet of things”. More and more devices – from refrigerators to cars to socks – interact with the internet on a nearly constant basis, leaving a trail of digital exhaust. That means greater convenience, but increasingly it also means that our devices are becoming “ready at hand” as Heidegger would have said. We’ve begun to see them as extensions of ourselves. The Internet of Things has become the Internet of Us.
It is tempting to see that as metaphorical. But there is actually a metaphysical point here, one which we can get at by way of two very different, if consistent, philosophical routes.
The first way in stems from what is known as the “extended mind” hypothesis. According to the philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers in a 1998 paper, our mental states, like our beliefs or our memories, aren’t always just in “in our heads”. They are spread out. In other words, it is not just that I use my contact list in my smartphone as a crutch to help me remember, my actual remembering is partly constituted by the phone itself. It is a combo of brain cells and computer chips.
Courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd